Prepare the battleground: The run
Your first step to starting off right is actually to forget that you’re getting chickens. It’s tempting, once you decide to do it, to go look at hatchery catalogs and decide on breeds and even make your order.
However, the right way to do it is first to imagine creating a zoo cage that will hold – at the same time – something that can climb infinite heights, something that can fly, something with the strength of an average human, something that can fit through an inch of space, and something totally unafraid of humans.
Think of it like caging the Wonder Twins – or, to put real names on it – a coydorachaweafox.
The huge problem with chickens is that they’re like the microwave popcorn of the cubicle office of the predator world. They’re fast, they’re easy, and the smell of them brings hungry moochers from all over the place.
If you’re living in a downtown area with nary a blade of grass or tree for miles, happily confident of the fact that you don’t have to worry about predators, STOP RIGHT NOW. The first week your chickens are out in their run you’ll discover that you’ve been living with a veritable horde.
Your top predators in most areas are going to be:
1) Dogs. Yours and your neighbors’. They don’t climb too well but they dig amazingly well. They also kill for the fun of it, so if they can get in they’ll keep going until anything that moves is dead. Mentally build a kennel that cannot be dug under (this will keep out coyotes as well).
2) Raccoons. They are too big to fit through small spaces, but their hands are not. We lost a half-grown chick the very first night we had them out, in what I thought was Fort Knox, because a raccoon reached through the wire and grabbed a leg. Half the chicken was left behind. Not pretty. Raccoons are extremely – freakishly – strong and they can undo latches and pry up staples. Mentally build something entirely held together by screws and with a sizeable area made of wood or metal where the chickens can run and hide and not be grabbed through.
3) Hawks and owls. They will come from the sky and they like lone, vulnerable animals with no cover to get under. Mentally build something with a strong and closely spaced roof or covering of some kind.
4) Fox. The best diggers. They can get under and into anything in a very short amount of time. Urban foxes will hunt during the day, too.
5) Weasels (and their relatives – fishers and skunks and others). Don’t climb too well, don’t fly, but tunnel like crazy and can fit through anything that’s over an inch in diameter. What they don’t fit through they chew through. Mentally build something with only tiny holes, and make sure the wire is heavy..
So… that cute little run made of chicken wire? That only costs $15 for a huge roll? Forget it. Chicken wire is basically useless except to keep chickens out of something. Fence off your garden with it if you’d like, or use it to create internal dividers in your coop if you would like to keep separate breeds. Do NOT use it as any kind of an external barrier that separates your birds from the big bad world.
What you want to use instead is a combination of welded wire or chain link (for strength) and hardware cloth (for tiny holes). Every inch of exposure up to about waist height must either be wood (or thick plastic or metal) or BOTH heavy wire and hardware cloth. Above that you can usually leave off the hardware cloth, but you still need a barrier to deter the climbers.
Diggers are stopped by one of two options: burying a couple feet of closely spaced welded wire or aluminum below the fence, or creating a skirt of welded wire that extends a couple of feet out from your fence.
OK – that’s the run. Just the run. Not the actual coop! You should be getting the impression that this has stopped being a $50 run to Home Depot quite a while ago. Building it right is not easy or cheap.
I am sure that right now a bunch of people are saying “Look, I kept chickens in an upturned orange crate for twenty years!” or “My neighbors have their layers in a run made of a piece of sheet attached to a rotten tree and they’re fine!” And they’re right. Lots and lots of people keep chickens like that. But I can guarantee you that they either lose a bunch to predators every year or they have a good outside-only farm dog.
When I was growing up, we had chickens in a cute little coop with an open-topped run. We lost very few except when a broody hen would decide to hide out in the woods and get picked off. We also had a German Shepherd with free run of the place (this was in the days before leash laws), and she never came inside. Her ears got sliced by raccoons and foxes before she was full-grown, but the chickens were safe. For twelve years she patrolled; the year she died we lost almost every chicken.
So yes, a good dog can save you. But most people don’t – and don’t want to – live that way anymore. Really reliable dogs are few and far between and neighbors don’t like the nighttime barking even when the dogs are good ones. In order to be a good neighbor you need to be able to batten down the hatches and appear as though you don’t exist by about ten at night, which gives predators free rein through most of the hours of the dark.
So now that you’re looking gloomily through the home center website and wincing at prices, plan on enclosing about ten square feet per chicken if they’re going to be spending most of their time in it. In other words, if you want nine hens and a rooster, a ten-by-ten area will work very well. You can get away with a little less per bird if you can offer them free range time each day, but trying to squish them together for any length of time is asking for them to get bored and cannibalistic.
If I can give you a bit of hope, especially if (like us) you are long on enthusiasm and short on money, one of the very best runs can be had for almost nothing if you look around.
My craigslist is almost always full of dog kennels. People buy them, use them a while, get rid of the dog or the dog goes to heaven, and they’re left with the kennel. The going price around here is about a hundred bucks for a ten-by-ten size in really good condition. Dog kennels make absolutely fantastic chicken runs. They’re the right size for a family flock, they’re strong, they look nice, and if you run hardware cloth around the bottom and hang deer netting over the top they’re pretty near impenetrable.
Next: What to put inside the run: Coops!
To give you some sneak-peek ideas, you can look at Backyard Chicken’s coop gallery. It’s a little intimidating, if you don’t feel like spending ten grand on a chicken coop, but there’s no better place to see a ton of people solving the same problems in different ways.